The unassailable dominance of the Nintendo Game Boy and its successors has long meant that, whenever a rival company releases a handheld of its own, their system will have to struggle to find its own niche. But of all the pretenders to the handheld crown to emerge in the 90s, the Neo-Geo Pocket Color was perhaps the most convincing.
When Nintendo launched the Game Boy Color in 1998, rival manufacturer SNK quickly realised that its black-and-white Neo-Geo Pocket, released the same year, was already outdated. To this end, SNK released the Neo-Geo Pocket Color the following year which, unlike its predecessor, was officially distributed in Europe and North America.
Although the Game Boy Color had Nintendo’s reputation and software library behind it, the NGPC had the potential to hold its own against its bigger rival, at least in terms of hardware – the NGPC’s Z80 processor was slightly faster, and its battery life was slightly better. Its case was sturdy and (for the time) compact, and its controls felt tight and responsive.
All the Neo-Geo Pocket needed to be a success was some good marketing and some decent games. SNK’s reputation for creating beat-em-ups and shooters with flashy graphics meant that it should have found a ready market among hardcore gamers in Japan, and to this end, the company created some great portable versions of familiar titles such as Metal Slug, King Of Fighters and Fatal Fury.
SNK’s big coup, though, was getting Sega to agree to make a Sonic The Hedgehog game for the system – something that should have immediately endeared the NGPC to a broader audience.
Sadly, some poor marketing, and problems within SNK (the company was bought out by a rival in 2000), meant that the NGPC never did as well as it deserved to in the west. The number of games officially launched outside Japan was small and, within a year of its launch in Europe and America, the system was withdrawn from the market and SNK’s overseas offices shuttered.
It was a premature end for a system that, although doomed to remain a distant second to the Game Boy, could have forged a great little niche of its own. NGPC titles were beautifully packaged (often with almost identical artwork to the Japanese versions, no doubt to save money), and the games themselves were sometimes brilliant, as we’ll see later.
Instead of becoming the hardcore 90s gamer’s system of choice – the Neo-Geo brand had long since become synonymous with unfeasibly expensive home consoles, after all – the NGPC ended up as yet another handheld whose life was cut short by Nintendo’s all-conquering Game Boy.
Yesterday, news emerged that a revitalised SNK (now known as SNK Playmore) might be about to bring out a new Neo-Geo handheld. Called the Neo-Geo Keitai (or Neo-Geo Portable), the system will come pre-loaded, the story goes, with 20 classic SNK games from its heday, including King Of Fighters ‘94, Metal Slug and Fatal Fury.
It’s not yet clear, though, when or if the system will be released, but it certainly looks the part, with a slim case that looks like an iPhone. Of course, it’s Apple’s device that has caused such a shake-up in the handheld market of late, and it remains to be seen if SNK will have any more success with this new system than it did in the late-90s with the NGPC.
Until the Neo-Geo Keitai comes out, the best way for retro game enthusiasts to enjoy the delights of SNK’s back catalogue is to simply buy one of the old NGPC systems. Which brings us to…
For a long time, the NGPC was so out of favour that both the system and various games could be picked up for next to nothing. More than a decade after its release, it’s inevitably more scarce these days, but NGPC games and systems are still readily available on Amazon and eBay.
Unsurprisingly, some games are more rare and expensive than others. A relatively common launch title like Pocket Tennis will be cheap and easy to find, but be prepared to pay a horrifying sum of money for a complete, boxed version of the rare shooter Cotton: Fantastic Night Dreams.
There were a total of 85 games released for the NGPC, though only a few of those made it out of Japan – mind you, the system isn’t region-locked, so there’s nothing to stop the more avid collector from hoarding ever last one of them. To get you started, here’s a handful of some of the best games the Neo-Geo Pocket had to offer:
Metal Slug: First Mission
It may not have the beautiful graphics of SNK’s coin-op original, but this portable version of Metal Slug retains all the fast-paced run-and-gun gameplay, and much of the humour and character that made its bigger brother so great. Enemy soldiers will shriek comically at your arrival, hostages will salute as you bravely free them, and even the little super-deformed tank’s present and correct.
In fact, the first level alone offers a chaotic trip in a tank, a vaunt through the sky in a chubby little Harrier Jump Jet, and then a final battle with a huge twin-rotor helicopter. If you’re thinking of buying a Neo-Geo Pocket, then Metal Slug should be the first game you buy for it.
Puzzle Bobble Mini
Puzzle Bobble Mini contains all the puzzles, modes and music from its bigger cousin (it appears to be modelled after Puzzle Bobble 2), and all the cute little dinosaurs. Its graphics are necessarily simplified for the NGPC’s low-res screen, but it’s still a recognisable, fun and challenging portable version of Taito’s classic. And as the dreadfully disappointing Puzzle Bobble Universe on the Nintendo 3DS proves, superior technology does not necessarily make for a better game.
Dark Arms: Beast Buster
Beast Busters, you may remember, was a horror-themed gun game famously adored by Michael Jackson (he even had a cabinet hauled around with him on tour, fact fans). Dark Arms: Beast Buster had little to do with the arcade game, offering instead a surprisingly deep hybrid of RPG and top-down shooter.
It’s more like a deeper version of the old 8-bit classic, Atic Atac, with a similar gothic horror atmosphere and pace to its gameplay. You could even craft and evolve your own weapons, which appeared to have a life of their own – in an element that may have been borrowed by the creators of Shadows Of The Damned, your guns grow hungry and have to be fed with the spirits of your vanquished enemies.
Dark Arms is a fun little oddity that, had it been programmed for a more popular system, would probably be celebrated as a cult classic. Remarkably, this most Japanese of adventures was distributed in Europe, so copies of it are readily available and ripe for rediscovery.
This portable version of the game better known to most as Picross is perfect fare for a handheld console. Filling in squares to form little pictures of tennis rackets and turtles may sound like kids’ stuff, but Picture Puzzle’s fiendishly difficult in its later stages. It’s a cracking little game, and well worth picking up if you can find a copy – for some reason, boxed versions are hard to get hold of, perhaps because so few were manufactured in the first place.
Sonic The Hedgehog Pocket Adventure
Given that Pocket Adventure’s a little handheld game from the 90s, you’d be forgiven for assuming that it’s little more than a cut-down shadow of the Mega Drive originals. Remarkably, though, this Neo-Geo Pocket entry is among the best Sonic games ever, with elaborately designed levels modelled around those seen in the first three home console titles, great music, and all the speed, loops and secrets you could hope for. There are boss battles with Robotnik, a great quasi-3D bonus round that looks a bit like Atari’s Stun Runner, plus a puzzle mini-game, and even a two-player link-up mode.
If there were any justice on this benighted planet, Sonic Pocket Adventure should have been the game that made the NGPC a hit in the West. Sadly, this fantastic entry is seldom talked about these days, though its obscurity isn’t without its upside: boxed copies can be picked up on the web for very little money if you’re willing to hunt around.
Also worth picking up: King Of Fighters R2, Pac-Man, Samurai Spirits, Rockman Battle & Fighters, Ganbare Neo Poke-Kun.